Someone who worked on Thief once said that stealth games make you feel like you’re getting away with something. That’s what I kept thinking while I watched SuicideMario shopping. I think that’s what she was doing. She sat there in her car for a bit. She got it. She went into a store. She came back out. She kept looking at her phone. I mostly sat in my car observing from a safe distance. I drove along slowly, following her. I even turned off the radio in the car just like you turn off the radio when you’re looking for an address. She might not have even known she was being followed. I was that sneaky. I was getting away with something.
After the jump, private eyes, watching you
I don’t know whether SuicideMario is male or female in the real world, but in Watch Dogs, the character model was a woman. My character model was that dopey guy from Watch Dogs named Adrian Peal or Arden Plaid or whatever. But to SuicideMario, I have no idea how I appeared. The game shuffles appearances during online encounters. The highest level online skill shows you a picture of your opponent. I’m not sure how helpful that would actually be, but it’s probably helpful if it’s the most powerful unlockable tool. SuicideMario would have had a picture of me on her screen. “Hey, isn’t that the guy in that white car over there?” She would have started shooting at me. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
I could be doing missions in Watch Dogs, but since I’m playing on a PC that isn’t quite up to spec, anything that involves driving faster than SuicideMario can walk is untenable. It’s a matter of waiting for the next frame, which can take a couple of seconds, and then projecting into the future how I should steer based on where I think I might be in the next several frames, which will take a while to load. That’s partly why this isn’t a review of Watch Dogs. I simply can’t play Watch Dogs with this computer.
But I’m also not doing the story missions in Watch Dogs because they’re awful so far. Once again Ubisoft can’t manage a story or characters that aren’t forgettable at best. What is it about the company that they do such a tremendous job with the technical and gameplay aspects of videogame design, but they can’t manage storytelling that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by if someone else walked into the room? Why isn’t there someone in that sprawl of dozens of Ubisoft studios around the world who is capable of telling a story with characters half as meaningful as The Last of Us, Bioshock, Gone Home, Bastion, Metro, or Grand Theft Auto V? When will they understand that a AAA title with bad writing is like grape Koolaid served in a fine wine glass? Instead, Watch Dogs is a wooden rote “so a dude’s family gets killed and he gets revenge” potboiler, with a bland cypher as the lead character, an Asian sidekick, a plucky sister, a mysterious benefactor, a sullen nephew, and various other adjective/relationship Madlibs where writing should be.
But as an open-world game, Watch Dogs is Ubisoft’s game design at its best. You can see in this Chicago sandbox the DNA of Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, and Far Cry, wound up tightly and molded into something that almost feels like it has its own identity. You forget this is Splinter Cell’s gadget porn, crossed with Far Cry 3’s character advancement, crossed with Assassin’s Creed’s production values, crossed with the bravely subversive multiplayer you’ve most likely ignored all along in their other games, crossed with all the lovely gunplay Ubisoft has been doing ever since they licensed Tom Clancy’s name. You almost forget that you’re supposed to care about Allen Pratt, or whatever his name is.
So while I wait to either upgrade my computer or get a next-gen system — you can’t very well play Watch Dogs without enjoying its car chases and races — I’m enjoying the lovely seamless multiplayer, which is a bit like Dark Souls. Other players can enter your world, and vice versa. It’s a sense of digitally violating someone else’s privacy, but in the polite way that befits a techno-thriller. SuicideMario probably got a notice that “tomchick stole some of your data” while she was on her way to further the story of Armin Plack. She must have felt indignant, but I didn’t mess up whatever she was doing. After all, this isn’t one of those games with the usual pedestrian “okay, you guys shoot at each other for a while” multiplayer. It’s mostly sneaking around, watching your notoriety rise and fall, chasing and hacking. And unlike the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell, it can’t hide in a separate executable where you can ignore it again (unless you turn it off). Now your potentially violated privacy occupies the same open-world where you’re following the saga of Alden Pearce avenging his murdered family. Good luck with that. While you’re doing it, I’ll be cruising slowly down the street in a white car, getting away with things, watching you.